Ever since “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” Jay-Z and Beyoncé have wanted you to know two things about their relationship: they’re in love and they’re rich. For years that’s the most they’ve cared to divulge. They kept their 2008 wedding as hush-hush as possible and would almost never be caught publicly without sunglasses — Jay often opted to cover his eyes while they sat courtside at indoor NBA games. They popped up here and there as if to bless us with their public presence, but that exterior appearance was all us normal people got to witness.
It wasn’t until 2016, with the release of Beyoncé’s creative opus Lemonade, that cracks in the perfect marble sculpture of the Carters became visible. Bey not only touched on the social and political nature of Black love, but the personal as well; she was on a quest for self-knowledge in the face of infidelity. That infidelity, Jay-Z’s alone, was nothing but a tabloid rumor for a couple years but made headlines with Lemonade and was only further made concrete when 4:44 arrived in 2017. With 4:44, Jay-Z brought his flaws to the forefront, admitting his guilt and asking for forgiveness. Who knows what happened between the two superstars behind closed doors, but it seems to them the highest form of therapy is making music together. And with the unannounced drop of EVERYTHING IS LOVE, this unorthodox trilogy of healing has its final act.
EVERYTHING IS LOVE represents a synthesis of Beyoncé’s perfect pop formula and Jay-Z’s classical brand of rap, but instead of being the lavish pairing we have come to expect, it comes across as a controlled mess. The couple’s undying love is at the center of the album, but the music itself has no heart — there’s no sonic flow as the tracklist jumps from a sexy string symphony to trap-inspired synth banger or songs that sound less like collaborations and more like Magna Carta Holy Grail or 4 leftovers.
If anything, one of the few consistent musical takeaways from the album is that Beyoncé has cemented herself as a good rapper, sometimes outshining Jay-Z in terms of technical ability. She borrows the triplet flow on “APESHIT,” trades bars with Pharrell on “NICE” and poetically chides her husband on “LOVEHAPPY.” “You fucked up the first stone, we had to get remarried,” raps Bey, almost certainly looking at Jay dead in the eyes in the booth. In this way, EVERYTHING IS LOVE comes across as Beyoncé album that happens to feature Jay-Z on every track, as he functions more as afterthought than equal collaborator. His contributions are fewer and further between than those of his wife, and his verses occupy the portions of any given instrumental at its barest; Beyoncé is backed by a soulful chorus on “BOSS” while Jay-Z is left to work with snare drums and a singular background vocalist. When Jay-Z flips off the NFL and tells them “You need me, I don’t need you” on “APESHIT,” it’s almost if Beyoncé could say the same to her husband himself.
There’s something off about this new version of Beyoncé, though, as she brags about Lamborghinis and Patek Philippe watches on a verse clearly written by Offset of the Migos (him and Quavo lend their ad-libbing talent to “APESHIT”), and her flow perfectly matches Pharrell’s on “NICE,” leaving you wondering if he just didn’t give her half of his verse. In fact, there’s this whole manufactured quality of EVERYTHING IS LOVE that makes this meditative masquerade sound artificial. Each song rests on the shoulders of a veritable army of songwriters and producers: Ty Dolla $ign, Cool & Dre and Boi-1da, to name a few.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z are so in control of their public images that it should come as no surprise they recruited such talent to bring this album to life. However, facts like that make this celebration of their love seem hollow. The convenient rollout of EVERYTHING IS LOVE and the two preceding solo albums, along with the On the Run II Tour, makes the inner conspiracy theorist in me wonder if the whole saga of Jay-Z’s affair (except Solange whooping Jay’s ass in an elevator) was nothing more than a carefully crafted publicity stunt to drive album sales and Tidal subscriptions.
Ironically, the best moments of EVERYTHING IS LOVE comes when it relaxes its precise focus on the power couple. Album highlight “BLACK EFFECT” is a love letter to their own Blackness and acceptance of the symbolic power they have in their community. Jay-Z aims to uplift, shouting out “I’m good on any MLK Boulevard” and demonstrating the power of unity. The video for “APESHIT” is similarly empowering; the two have the fuck-you money to rent out the Louvre for one night and use it as their personal artistic playground, juxtaposing successful Black artists like themselves and their team of dancers with perhaps the most recognizable collection of white art on the planet. Jay-Z props himself before The Raft of the Medusa, a rarity among famous paintings as a Black man is at the pinnacle of the composition, while Beyoncé dances in front of the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory of Samothrace, placing herself as the new ideal of beauty among those classical notions.
Yet, without the visuals for “APESHIT,” the song is nothing more than an elevated trap anthem, as the lyrics give no hint of its take on high art. And this identity crisis is representative of the whole album itself: While it attempts to shape Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s love, success and passion into a jubilant meditation on Black excellence, it celebrates Carter excellence instead. Albeit tastefully opulent, EVERYTHING IS LOVE can’t shake its extravagant vanity.